Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Is Cairo history?

In a few years Egyptians will be getting their own Dubai-styled new capital, writes Niveen Wahish

Al-Ahram Weekly

If there was one major announcement at the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh last week, apart from the numerous investment deals signed, it was that the country will soon have a new administrative capital.

Dubbed “Capital Cairo,” the first phase of the new city, which does not yet have an equivalent name in Arabic, will come to life in five to seven years.

The new capital will occupy over 700 square kms east of Cairo, in a central spot between Greater Cairo and the Red Sea, and will accommodate some five million people. The first phase alone will cost some $45 billion.

The huge project will be built by Capital City Partners, a private global investor fund established specifically to develop plans for the new city, according to Mohamed Alabbar, the company’s founding partner.

The project is being aided by international design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM). SOM city planners developed the initial framework and core principles of a sustainable new city, according to the company’s website.

Alabbar said that Emaar Properties, a leading real estate developer that he founded and chairs, will not be building the new city.

Emaar is well known for having built Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

The future city will not only house administrative and business buildings but also an airport, a theme park four times bigger than California’s Disneyland and a tourist tower, as well as 1.1 million housing units and 40,000 hotel rooms.

To ensure sustainability, the new city will largely depend on renewable energy with 90 square kms dedicated to producing solar energy.

The building of the new city will not be the first time the Egyptian capital has moved, but it will be the first such move in some 1,000 years. According to Minister of Housing Moustafa Madbouly, the move is needed because in 40 years’ time Cairo’s population will have doubled, resulting in more informal areas. Today’s Greater Cairo population is around 18 million.

Harshjit Oza, a property and banking analyst with Naeem Holding, said that Cairo has become congested and too densely populated.

“A new capital is an ideal solution to address the issue if the government can secure the funding,” he said.

He said the plans for the new city look impressive and that the people responsible are professionals in their field. “If Cairo wants to become a financial and business hub, it needs to be able to compare to other financial centres,” Oza said.

The project will boost the real estate sector and create jobs in construction, helping many to earn a living. Alabbar says that, in the initial phases, Capital City Partners will be in charge of designing and building the new capital without subcontracting. But Oza expects that the developer will outsource construction to local companies. “Most property developers outsource to local contractors who are expert in sourcing labour, raw materials and project management.”

Some have criticised the plan for a new capital, saying that the money would be better spent upgrading services around the country.

Khaled Fahmy, history professor at the American University in Cairo said in an article entitled “Chasing Mirages in the Desert” that the sum spent on building the new city could improve the living standards of millions of Egyptians and “easily solve problems of transportation, housing, sanitation and garbage collection.”

While little information is available about how construction of the city will be financed, Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman has been quoted as saying that the government will incur “zero costs” for the project.

Oza believes the funding is likely to come from a public-private partnership between the Egyptian government and private investors, most likely from the Gulf region. The land will be provided by the government.

A 2007 study by the cabinet’s Information Decision Support Centre (IDSC), entitled “A Future Vision for the Capital of Egypt, 2050,” studied options for upgrading the current capital as opposed to moving it altogether.

Among the drawbacks was a sentimental attachment to the historic capital, in addition to the cost of new infrastructure and buildings. There would also be the social costs and logistics of moving employees of government authorities and ministries.

The study highlighted the need for consensus on any such move, adding that a poll showed that only 42 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of moving the capital.

Others are concerned for different reasons. Osama Okail, a professor of highways and traffic engineering at Ain Shams University, says that the new city could add to congestion rather than alleviate it.

In fact, he says that the new city might bring Greater Cairo to a halt because of its proximity, being less than 50 km away from Cairo.

“As a result of a project like this new city, the Suez Canal Road will become like Ramses Street, known for its horrendous traffic,” Okail said.

The IDSC study says that any new capital should be at least 300 km away from the current capital to avoid it becoming simply an extension of the old.

Although plans for the new city include a high-speed train and public transport network, Okail warns that this may not be enough.

“Occupancy rates in cities such as New Cairo and Sixth October are still minimal, and they are already pressuring the road network,” he said.

Around 20 million road trips take place daily, Okail said, and the new city will add at least 10 million more, particularly since it will accommodate higher-income individuals and the business community.

He is also concerned that moving the government will cause administrative problems for ordinary people, along with possibly the further deterioration of Cairo. The latter’s commercial areas will suffer, Okail said, turning the city into only a tourist destination.

Instead of moving the city as a whole, Okail believes that moving parts of it could give better results, including embassies and military training centres, creating more space for gardens.

Despite assurances by the minister of housing that the new city will encompass all social classes, Okail fears it could create a secluded business community and become a kind of artificial city modelled on Dubai. The latter has its own problems, including the fact that it is overcrowded and very expensive.

For Okail, it would be a shame to leave behind Cairo, with all its history and the River Nile. “The idea needs further study,” he said.

According to the minister of housing, the new city project along with others, including development of new cities in Al-Alamein on the northwest coast and Toshka in the south and the Suez Canal Area Development Project, will double the overall area of occupied land in Egypt from the current six per cent to 12 per cent.

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